Iona didn’t like the Festival of Lights. Apart from the fact she was required to parade about like Lady Muck of the Manor, which she found tedious, the whole thing had been someone else’s idea in the first place, and that was never something she enjoyed. She’d already done the official rounds last night. In a way, it was quite a delightful spectacle. Bards cast light displays into the sky, street performers wowed the gathered crowds, there were braziers on every corner and hundreds of candle lanterns strung up over anything that couldn’t object. She’d have preferred to save the candles for the long winter nights, but there you go.
She had only come back to the festival because she was looking for someone. She had something to pass on, and she was certain that she’d find who she was looking for somewhere in the crowds with very little effort. Clara Cropper and her associate Pudding the Goblin were bards – really bad bards – and therefore would be working the festival like every other bard in the city, and the worse the bard the less salubrious the pitch. She had trawled every tumbledown cul-de-sac she could think of, looking for them, but so far no luck. All she seemed to be able to find were Life Temple Clerics and nuns, there seemed to be dozen of them. There were two more on the corner of this street, and they must have started young because one of them was barely bigger than a child. She chuckled under her breath, why was surprised?
Shaking her head, she went over to the Sisters and dropped a groat into their bowl. The small one looked up to say ‘Goddess Bless you, Ma’am’ and stopped with her mouth open. The habit’s cowl fell back and after a moment of staring like a stunned rabbit, Clara grinned at Iona, displaying her rickety teeth, and said
“I might have known,” said Iona after a moment, then reaching over to Clara’s companion yanked the cowl back and found a goblin with an unnerving smirk giving her a very suggestive wink. “What do you think you’re doing?” Iona punctuated this question with an eloquent look that said not only ‘don’t call me guv’nor’ but to also ‘start explaining very quickly before I call the militia’.
“Collectin'” said Clara unphased, showing the bowl, “for the horphans.” There were quite a few coins in there, mainly groats although someone who fancied themselves as a philanthropist had chucked in a slightly mangled looking florin.
“For the orphans,” repeated Iona dubiously. “You’ve collected this for the orphans?”
“In a manner of speakin’, yeah,” replied Clara, tilting her head and squinting out of one eye.
“In a manner of speaking?” echoed Iona, “So that would be not at all then.”
“Well, technically,” interrupted Pudding, “We’re both orphans.”
“You are collecting dressed as Clerics of Life,” said Iona trying not to find this funny. “Which may I remind you is an arrestable offense – obtaining charitable donations under an assumed religious belief. Can you two sink any lower?” She had adopted her school-mistress tone, which never quiet had the desired effect on these two. Pudding just snorted, and said,
“Yest’de Clara pretended to be one of them temple orphans.” Iona made an effort to look shocked, Pudding just carried on – chortling to herself. “She was doin’ quite well too, until Sister Hildegaart got hold of ‘er and spent ten minutes scrubbin’ her face with a cloth, Look.” The goblin pointed at Clara, who scowled and thumped her friend. Iona could actually see scrub marks on Clara’s face, but she didn’t dare smile.
“Well, you should be ashamed,” she said.
“We need the money,” said Clara flatly. “It’s bloody cold now and this coat is all I’ve got.” She pulled her green habit up over her head to show Iona her threadbare overcoat, that had previously belonged to someone a foot larger than her in all dimensions and had no buttons.
“Oh dear,” said Iona, trying not to smirk. “that’s a bit pathetic. It doesn’t even have any buttons.” Clara looked offended.
“It does have buttons!” she exclaimed, “big brass ones.”
“Where?” snorted Iona, barely stifling a snigger.
“In the pawn shop on Market Street,” said Pudding haughtily, “we got a very good price for them too.”
“Oh did you?” said Iona. “Well in that case, you won’t need this.” She tried to take the bowl from Clara’s hand but the girl’s reflexes were sharp.
“We aint got none left,” continued Pudding, “City life is hexpensive you know. Apart from those groats, that florin and a slightly suspect piece of Paravelian Gold with the paint peeling off, we’re flat broke.” Suspect clearly meant fake in this context.
“Well,” said Iona, well aware that in a public gathering such as this she need to be seen to ‘do the right thing’ and try to get these two miscreant to see the error of their ways, “have you tried earning money in an honest fashion? By performing perhaps?”
“We did,” was Clara’s sullen reply. “Day before yest’day we were moved on cos some snot-nosed Cleric took offense to ‘You can tell she’s a lady by what she charges’.”
“Day before that,” chimed in Pudding, “We was actually arrested for singin’ the extended version of ‘She likes it like a well boiled ham’- happarently that isn’t suitable family hentertainment,” Pudding pulled a haughty face in imitation of the po-faced militiaman who’d dragged them in. All Iona could think of to say was,
“She likes it like a well boiled ham?” The songs the pair sang never ceased to amaze her.
“Yeah.” replied Pudding earnestly. “She likes it like a well boiled ham,”
“Pink and firm and juicy,” chorused Clara.
“I see,” said Iona. She could see where that was going and arrest seemed inevitable. “Well, you can’t keep that money,” she said high-handedly, mainly because she was in public and she had to be seen to be honest at the very least. “Come on. Hand over those habits and we’ll sort this all out.”
With a certain degree of moaning and goblin-handling, she managed to drag the pair of sorry-looking urchins three streets down to where the real Sisters of the Chalice had a large stall set up. They were handing out soup and sanctimonious advice to anyone who would take it.
“Go on,” said Iona, shoving Clara forward towards an enormous burly nun with a hooked nose and a squint. Sister Hildegaart looked down at Clara and opened her mouth to berate her errant charge, met Iona’s gaze and shut her mouth again.
“Here,” grunted Clara emptying her bowl into the Sisters’ clay pot without making eye contact with the nun.
“For the horphans,” explained Pudding theatrically, without anyone asking. Clara turned to go but Iona stopped her, spun her back around and cleared her throat expectantly.
“Sorry,” mumbled Clara looking extremely sour.
“Yeah, what she said,” added Pudding, showing no respect or contrition whatsoever. “Nice scapular by the way, your holiosity.” She then winked at Sister Hildegaart and the nun bristled. Iona clipped Pudding around the before handing Hildegaart the two stolen habits that she was holding.
As they walked away from the Sisters, Iona leaned in and whispered,
“Try some juggling or something next time. Now clear off will you?”
The pair didn’t need to be told twice. They scuttled off into the crowd in search of someone who’d given them cider on tick. After about a hundred yards, Clara paused and patted her voluminous coat pocket. She put her hand in and pulled out a small rag bundled. Opening it carefully on her palm, she found herself looking down at all eight brass buttons. The smile on her face nearly reached both ears. She looked up to thank Iona, but she had already gone.
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